Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Life is like a box of...?

When a mystery package arrived from my grandmother out in AZ it had my coworkers and I shaking our heads. Whenever I get a package from my relatives I think of Forest Gump and the box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.

We were only slightly less confused once we opened the box and discovered 6 giant fruits staring back at us. We stared right back.

I walked down the hall carrying one of the giant orange behemoths, hoping that someone would be able to shed some light on this mysterious present. Alas, there were no fruit experts on duty that day. I consulted various websites including the aptly named Fruitpages.com. We determined it was definitely in the citrus family.

They sat on my desk all day while I admired their size and beautiful color. They were a wonderful shade of orange mixed with bright pink. I endured the stares of curious coworkers who assumed I must have some strange, secret admirer who tries to woo his unsuspecting romantic interest with fruit of an unknown variety. I did nothing to deny these rumors.

I finally and reluctantly gave into the suspense by slicing into one. The frangrant and familiar scent of grapefruit filled the office. I wish I could say it was something more exciting like durian, but for the sake of the office, grapefruit is probably preferable. It was not only the color of the skin and the size that were intriguing, but also the rind that was more than an inch thick when we cut into it. If they tried to sell these bad boys in the supermarket, they would probably have many dissatisfied customers wondering what's wrong with their grapefruit. Well I would tell these customers to eat it and shut up. It's delicious. Better in fact than any commercial grapefruit you've ever tasted. A little research revealed that if the fruit sits on the tree for a while, the skin will become thicker but the fruit is fully protected inside. It was by far the sweetest grapefruit I have ever tasted.

My coworkers were more than willing to sample them and once I offered they seemed to disappear. After weeks of donuts, cookies, cupcakes and pizza I think that fresh fruit hanging around the office was something of a novelty.

I managed to put one aside for myself. The pictures don't do it justice. If you ever come across a grapefruit tree, take as many as you possibly can. And let me know, I'll be happy to take them off your hands.


"It's Almost Spring" Rolls

On a recent trip to Reading Terminal and Chinatown I realized very quickly that I should have brought luggage. I did get a workout though while juggling a potted hydrangea, a 10 lb sack of rice, and enough produce to feed a family of four for a couple weeks. Among my finds though was a pack of spring roll wrappers - 50 for a little more than a dollar. At least I guessed they were spring roll wrappers from the pictures on the back of the package. Lest you think that I have been falling off the vegetarian wagon what with the chicken pot pie and all you will be happy to see that these are in fact devoid of meat. Ok so they are also deep fried. Guess you can't please all of the food gods at the same time.

Ingredients
1 package extra firm tofu, drained and cubed into small pieces
1 stalk (is that the right terminology?) bok choy, finely diced
1 scallion, white and green parts sliced
1 package mushrooms, finely diced
Soy Sauce
Sesame oil
A tsp or so of grated ginger
Canola oil
1 package spring roll wrappers
Dipping sauce of your choice

In a large, non stick skillet or wok, heat a small amount of canola oil over medium low heat. Once it's hot add your tofu. Flip occasionally so they don't burn. You don't have to be too gentle because it's ok if it gets broken up a little. Let them sautee for about 3 minutes before adding the mushrooms. Once the mushrooms start to brown add the scallions, ginger, and a splash each of the soy sauce and sesame oil. You may want to add more to taste. You don't need to add salt unless you are using low sodium soy sauce. Let this mixture cook together and stir occasionally. You should turn down the heat if anything seems like it is browning too much. This mixture should give off almost all of it's moisture. Once it's pretty dry, turn off the heat and let cool slightly. Pour into a bowl.

Prepare your work station with the wrappers (kept under a damp paper towel), filling, a plate to keep the stuffed rolls, and a plate lined with paper towels to drain the fried rolls.

This is the method I used to stuff them, which seemed to work pretty well. The wrappers were not as fragile as other dumpling wrappers I've used which made the process much easier.


Once you have them all wrapped, start heating your vegetable oil. I used my cast iron dutch oven. You want enough so that the spring rolls will be submerged, but you don't need a ton of oil especially for small spring rolls. Heat it over medium heat, and keep some small bits of tofu or bread to test the heat. When you drop something in and it immediately sizzles and begins to brown, it's ready. If it browns and burns very quickly, turn the heat down a bit.



Carefully drop them in a few at a time and keep a close eye on them. Flip them once you can see brown around the edges. A spider is a very handy tool to have. If you don't have one, it's worth the $1 at your local asian grocer. Take them out and let sit on paper towels for a few minutes before dipping in your favorite sauce and enjoying.



As with all labor intensive foods, make enough to freeze. Don't make the same mistake I did of freezing them together in one container. Freeze them in batches being careful not to let them touch before placing the individual frozen spring rolls in a bag or tupperware.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Puff Pastry Pizza

After my first experience using frozen puff pastry turned out to be such a smashing success I knew I had to think of a way to utilize the leftovers. Rather than sacrifice it to the freezer gods who would likely forget about it for several months I decided to put it to good use as a vessel for some veggies that had been lurking in my fridge for a few days. It's only March and I'm already entering "I bought too much produce at the farmer's market because it looked so good but how much spinach can one person eat" season. I need to learn to pace myself.

Ingredients

Package of frozen puff pastry, thawed - won't need the whole thing and cut to size depending on desired servings
Handful fresh spinach
Handful fresh cherry tomatoes
Handful mushrooms, sliced
1 small onion, sliced
1 or 2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 small package goat cheese, flavored is fine
Olive oil

Start sauteeing the onions over medium low heat in a small amount of olive oil. These will need to cook the longest because you want them to be caremalized. Stir and watch carefully for about 5 minutes then add the mushrooms. Once the mushrooms begin to brown add the spinach, garlic, and plenty of salt and pepper. Stir the veggies occasionally and cook until the spinach is all wilted, the tomatoes have burst open, and the mushrooms and onions are soft and have some color on them. Let cool slightly.


Meanwhile prep your puff pastry on a baking sheet. I eyeballed a single portion in the shape of a rectangle, being pretty generous. Slice thin strips off of each side which will be your outer crust. Lay these around the edges like so:


Spread your veggies on your puff pastry in an even layer and dot with a few pieces of goat cheese. A little bit of goat cheese will go a long way.

Bake in a 350 degree oven until the crust is slightly brown. Check occasionally so the bottom doesn't burn.


You'll probably end up with leftover veggies. Save for a sandwich, omelette, pasta salad....

Friday, March 26, 2010

Wilma's Pot Pie

I remember when my mom - in a perhaps ill conceived effort to rethink the traditional Thanksgiving Day pumpkin pie - took a survey of my families favorite pies. Without hesitation I replied "chicken pot, or maybe shepards." Seeing as how the only pot pies I've tasted are of the pre-made variety I figured it's about time I make one myself. It seems like one of those meals that you probably don't eat too often but when you do, it should be homemade. And sorry, it should include chicken. I think when almost every ingredient is grown locally and it utilizes the entire chicken it's ok to live a little. I even shelled my own peas for pete's sake. That's gotta count for something right? If I ever try my hand at a veggie pot pie I'll let you know how it goes. Don't hold your breath though.

Ingredients
Chicken stock - about a pint
Chicken meat, cooked
Handful peas - Mine were local and yes I shelled them myself
1 large carrot, cut into bite size pieces
Handful sliced mushrooms
Handful of yukon gold or fingerling potatoes, cubed
1 small onion, diced
3 tbsp flour
3 tbs butter
1 cups of milk, low fat is fine
Olive oil
1 package frozen puff pastry, thawed - I used Pepperidge Farm

Start by sauteeing the vegetables in a small amount of olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. The potatoes should go in first because they will take the longest followed by the carrots. Once these have both started to soften slightly add the mushrooms and onions. Season liberally with salt and pepper. Pepper especially is an essential part of this dish. It's ok if the potatoes and carrots aren't completely cooked through as they will finish in the gravy and in the oven. You do, however, want a nice brown on the mushrooms and onions. Once they are caramelized add the butter and flour. Stir to coat the veggies completely and dissolve the flour. Then add the chicken stock and the milk. Stir occasionally and turn the heat down to medium low. This should take maybe about 5 minutes to start thickening. Once it starts to thicken add the chicken and peas. Cook for an additional 5 minutes or until it is a nice gracy like consistency. If it's not thick enough you may want to make a slurry out of flour or cornstarch.

Prepare the vessels of your choice. I like individual sized baking dishes. To prepare, slice the puff pastry to fit your vessels. A little bit of overhang around the edges is fine.

Pour the filling into the vessels so that it almost comes up to the top. You want them full but not overflowing. Place your puff pastry over the top - warning that you need to do this step quickly and get them into the oven because the gravy will start warming up the pastry - and cut a few slits in the middle. Pop them into the oven with a baking dish or foil underneath to catch the inevitable gravy drips. Bake at 350 degrees until the pastry is nice and golden brown. This should take about 12 minutes but watch carefully. Take out. Inhale deeply. Get ready to burn your mouth because you will not be able to resist it's flaky crust and creamy chickeny goodness.



Mmm Mmm good.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Wilma's Toasted Chicken Adventure

My Saturday morning ritual, made even nicer when the weather cooperates, is to mosey on down to the Fitler Square farmer's market that is a block from my house. I always have a firm budget, and the prices are so good that I am usually able to stock up on fresh goodies for the entire week. Last Saturday it began as usual. I grabbed my staples plus some veggies that caught my eye. Upon paying I realized I had come in under budget. Armed with a few extra dollars I suddenly found myself grabbing a whole chicken. Shocking I know.

So I walked home thinking of the delicious homemade chicken stock and pot pie I could make with the adorable little free range, organic, locally grown chicken tucked in my bag, happy as a clam. I promptly shoved the thing in my fridge where I figured it would be safe for a day. So I went about my weekend, with the images of a roasted chicken with golden crispy skin dancing in my head.

Skip forward to Sunday afternoon. I opened my fridge to find that despite my best efforts the sucker had leaked some unsavory juices all over the place. The first sign that this was yet another experiment gone horribly wrong. And as Slagheap says, this is a benefit of being vegetarian. You don't have to disinfect your entire kitchen after opening up a package of tofu. Not to be deterred I scrubbed my hands, the floor, my fridge etc obsessively and vowed to be more careful in the future.

It was not until I got the thing on a plate that I realized what I had gotten myself into. Let's look a little more closely at this situation. My oven does not work. If I turn it on, it will immediately heat up to 500 degrees and set off my smoke alarm. Usually it is not a problem. My trusty toaster oven has served me well turning out everything from lasagna to duck breast. Well, I stood there for quite some time, staring at the chicken, then at my toaster oven. I wish you could have been inside my head at that moment as I pictured every possible angle at which I could shove the dumb bird in there, convinced it would work. The cooking shows I had on in the background mocked me with images of beautiful roasted chickens, pulled whole out of the oven and browned to perfection.

After putting up a a good fight I grabbed my butcher knife, ready to carve the thing manageable pieces. It might not be as pretty carved up, but I was having a my golden brown chicken one way or another. Well let me tell you something about a whole raw chicken. I'm no animal lover (I mean I like animals as much as the next person) but this thing just looked pathetic. It looked enough like a dead animal that I had visions of the poor little guy getting up on his chicken legs and walking around. I not so gingerly tried to just hack into it, hoping that my knife would be sharp enough to quickly break it down into something that no longer resembled Chicken Little. Well it took me so long that I had to keep taking breaks to wash my hands and gather my thoughts. The skin and bones were just a little too much for me. I finally got through the top layer at which point I frantically called my dad to ask him why there was a bag in my chicken and what was in it. Unfortunately for me he was not there.

Long story short I took a deep breath, tried to ignore the little ribs poking out and just went for it. I could not have been happier when that thing was in the oven, safely on it's way to becoming food.

Meanwhile, the easy part began. I chopped up some veggies and other ingredients:

2 large carrots, sliced into big chunks
1 onions peeled and sliced into wedges
4 Garlic cloves, peeled and left whole
1 bulb fennel, sliced in half and including the fronds
Top and core of a bell pepper (Save the good parts for another dish)
2 bay leaves, whole

Then I sauteed them briefly in my cast iron dutch oven with a drizzle of olive oil. (Any large stock pot would work.) Before they start softening or browning pour water over them enough to cover them plus a few inches depending on how big your pot is. Unless you have magically clean tasting tap water I think it's worth the extra step if you have a filter to use filtered water. Simmer on medium low heat stirring occasionally. You should also liberally salt and pepper the stock at this point. Let simmer for at least 30 mins while the chicken is toasting.

When the chicken is done and nicely golden brown, let it cool slightly. Pull off the useable meat and set aside. Throw the remaining bits (should be mostly bone and cartilage, you can discard most of the skin) into the stock pot. Make sure that the water does not come a rolling boil, and in fact I turned the heat down to low. It should simmer steadily. Add more liquid as it evaporates and stir occasionally.


This should simmer for about an hour and a half. If it doesn't smell rich and flavorful and turn a nice rich brown color then it is not done. If you use the whole fennel like I did then it might be tinged green which is perfectly normal. After about an hour and a half turn the heat off so that it can cool. You do not want it to burn you. There are several methods you can use to strain it. Lacking fancy equipment I used a spider (a slotted spoon might work) to fish out all of the solid materials. Normal human beings would probably want to strain it through some sort of sieve. I would recommend that if you go through all this trouble that you make as much as you can in one batch and freeze the leftovers. My chicken pot pie recipe using this stock will follow.

Ressurection Twice Fried With a Side of Sandwich

Forget molecular gastronomy. I have recently had the pleasure of tasting two of the greatest and most innovative restaurant dishes ever created: twice fried chicken and the side sandwich. Ok so the side sandwich was actually Fred's creation, but thank you to Ressurection Ale House for creating a sandwich good enough to be elevated to the status of a side.

You are of course scratching your head right now, puzzled as to why one would need to improve upon such perfect culinary masterpieces as fried chicken and the sandwich. Friends, please be patient and I will try to explain. It all started when my fellow food bloggers (and vegetarian food bloggers I might add) introduced me to a small, off the beaten path bar serving great food with more than one vegetarian option. Sounded like my kind of place.

Nestled in the Graduate Hospital/Naval Square area, it is very much a neighborhood joint. Usually an indication that you'll find unpretentious food at a reasonable price minus the crowds surrounding any restaurant within walking distance of Rittenhouse Square.

Within seconds of perusing the menu Fred remarked upon the aforementioned "twice fried chicken" which prompted our waitress to inquire if we were here because we read the recent magazine article. You'd think that I of all people would have been in the know, but alas I had not read said article. No problem. We did not need a magazine article to tell us that this would be fried chicken unlike any other fried chicken any of us had ever had. As if twice frying was not enough to seal the deal, the spiced honey drizzled on top was the proverbial icing on the cake. I officially recommend that the phrase "icing on the cake" be changed to "honey on the chicken."

So what were we to do when two people wanted to order the praiseworthy chicken and they also wished to sample the Monte Cristo? Well anybody with common sense and decency would of course order one of each and share. Luckily, my two fellow diners had no such qualms about following convention and thus proceeded to each order the chicken with a "side of sandwich" to share. I have a feeling the waitress immediately when into the kitchen to tell everybody about the table that was foolish enough to order a side sandwich. Another waitress, who must not have believed that such people exist, delivered our entrees and lo and behold there was an extra sandwich. We ignored the stares and instructed her that it was ours, and no we were not waiting for another person. And that is how the side sandwich was born. May it live forever, or at least as long as such delicious sandwiches exist.

Other courses included the humble pickle, transformed. I've heard of pickled beets, but how about pickled pumpkins and grapes?
The balsamic braised beef shank sandwich is to die for. (Not that I would know of course.) All sandwiches come with their signature curry ketchup.
This is a place where you should save room for dessert.

Resurrection Ale House
2425 Grays Ferry Ave
Philadelphia, PA 19146

Monday, March 22, 2010

Dinner with a side of anarchy?

I think that my Christmas wish list (and what people ending up picking off of it) would make any foodie proud. It included everything from a wok to a cast iron dutch oven with more than a few cookbooks thrown in for good measure. Never mind that my apartment is 400 square feet and I am currently storing the dutch oven under the coffee table, the wok under the armchair and the cookbooks in the bathroom.

Anyways, it was a pleasant surprise when Fred presented me with a cookbook that was not on my list and that matched my eclectic tastes and interests in environmental and social causes. The real surprise may have been that it was a vegan cookbook. My first thought was - does he understand what vegan means? If I ever actually starting cooking vegan I think he might break up with me. My chicken pot pie is just that good.

All joking aside- yes, he did know it was vegan and was well aware of my status as "The Worst Vegatarian Ever" - I could see immediately why he picked it. I love that it came from my favorite place in the entire world, Reading Terminal Market.

"Another Dinner is Possible" by Mike and Isy is part vegan cookbook and part radical handbook with a healthy dose of politics. The authors cook for a volunteer collective at activist and community gatherings. Translated - this ain't Paula Deen y'all. They also happen to be British, and while many of the issues they address convert easily the measurements do not. Fair warning if you follow recipes closely.

Many of the recipes are fairly standard vegan fare- salads, lots of vegetable casseroles, lots of substituting with tofu. I like that they take a lot of inspiration from ethnic cuisines though, and they even devote an entire chapter to Korean food.

What you'll find find that you won't find in many other cookbooks are resources on foraging for wild food, growing your own produce, and even brewing your own alcohol. While I might not be brewing up a batch of homemade brewski any time soon, some advice is more pratical like the chapter on preserving and storing food. I've always wanted to try my hand at a making pickles.

I would recommend this as an "interesting" addition to your collection with the caveat that you might not want to let your meat eating friends read it. It's the kind of book that Anthony Bourdain would have a field day with as it portrays vegans as a bunch of radical hippies. That may be, but at least they are radical hippies who know how to brew their own beer.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Always trust a librarian...

to recommend the best books. I'd like to give a belated thanks to Mrs. Greusome for a perfect bridesmaid gift! When asked what type of books I like it was a no-brainer. Anything food related and I'm a happy camper.

I'll admit that I'm not as well read as I'd like to be, but there are a few books that I would call life changing. All are food or environmentally themed. Lately these two issues are becoming increasingly intertwined. What is rare is to find someone who can combine these two issues without taking the joy out of food. While I hope that the well publicized movement started by authors like Michael Pollan does something to create meaningful change, I am often times left feeling more guilty than hopeful.

In her book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle," Barbara Kingsolver manages to be at once both educational and uplifting. She's a well known author, so it's not suprising that her writing is poignant, humorous, and easy to read. This is food writing at its finest. I was moved to tears at times - although I should tell you that that I was also moved to tears by that movie Volcano with Tommy Lee Jones, so I'm not sure if I'm the most reliable critic.

The premise of the book is simple enough. Kingsolver and her family decide to move from Tuscon to a small farm in Virginia where they vow to produce all of their own food for one year. She (and her daughter Camille) are masterful storytellers who manage to interject social commentary with heartwarming anecdotes and even a few recipes. Yes, I am a sucker for idealism, but I try to live my life with a healthy dose of cynicism. Heck I even listen to Howard Stern every once in a while, even if it is mostly against my will. I recognize that this book is a far cry from reality and that the culture of "locavorism" has its flaws.

This book and the lifestyle it promotes arenot for everyone. In our society, eating well is a luxury that few can afford. I'm lucky enough to have access to farmer's markets year round, but even I give in to the tempations of citrus grown in Mexico and the occasional hot dog of questionable origin. In the end I would recommend this book if only because it's a thoroughly enjoyable read.